Virginia Standards of Learning and the No Child Left Behind Act
Many of our returning Foreign Service students who are enrolled in American public schools are learning that the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests, required in Virginia, or other state-mandated achievement tests, are given much importance by the local school systems. This paper addresses the Virginia Standards of Learning. At the time of this writing, Maryland is revising their state assessment program. Students going to other states or jurisdictions need to check with their local education professionals.
Virginia Standards of Learning
Standards of Learning (SOL) is a way for the Virginia Department of Education to outline the goals and objectives of the curriculum taught at each grade level in each subject. How these goals and objectives are met is measured by student performance on the state-mandated Standards of Learning tests.
In addition to the SOLs, each county has the ability to add another layer of curriculum objectives over the state mandated SOLs. Northern Virginia school districts, which pride themselves on rigorous academic standards, do augment the state SOLs with an additional layer of their own county curriculums in order to "exceed state standards." Instruction and learning outcomes are measured quarterly in some counties by standardized testing in each subject and grade level, in addition to the annual state SOLs. A Parent's Guide to Virginia Standards of Learning Program is a helpful resource.
Elementary and Middle School
In Virginia, for example, the Standards of Learning tests are high-stakes for the schools themselves at the elementary and middle school level, but less so for the students. SOL testing results have huge implications for the school, and the results are part of the School Performance Report Cards. At this level, the pass rate is the determining factor of whether or not a school attains or retains its accreditation status. It forms the basis for assessment of school, teacher, and student performance, and the results are widely publicized in the media. Standardized test scores are also a factor in determining local real estate values as homebuyers seek to purchase homes in neighborhoods with high achieving students. With the addition of the recent passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Education Act, the testing culture of American public education can only be expected to increase, not decrease. Needless to say, with such high visibility, school professionals take these outcomes very seriously.
The standardized tests can also measure competencies and highlight learning strengths and weaknesses for a child, and give school personnel and parents important information vis-à-vis expected skills for children at that level. Teachers teach the state curriculum and children are tested on their knowledge of the material taught. Taking the tests can also give children "test taking experience" that will help them learn to strategize on future standardized tests.
Perhaps the greatest area of concern for elementary and middle school students is parental and student anxieties over the testing experience itself. Here are some suggestions to help diffuse any stress that might develop.
Virginia SOLs and Student Evacuees
Many parents ask if our evacuated Foreign Service students are required to take the SOL tests. In Virginia, the state guidelines say that the child is required to take the SOL tests if they are enrolled in the school. If the child arrives after the beginning of the academic year, the answer key is coded so that any child who enters after the 20th day of instruction, or is a student in the English as a Second Language program, will not have his/her scores counted against the school if they do not achieve a passing score on the tests. However, if the child does pass the tests, then the school can use that score for their statistics. A child who does NOT take the test at all but is enrolled in the school will have his/her score recorded as a failing score for the school.
What are then the implications for an elementary or middle school child who does not pass the test? Parents of evacuated children have expressed concern about the implications of the SOLs for their children who have not been in school long enough to receive instruction on the material being tested. First of all, it has no impact on promotions or class assignments. If a child does not pass all four of the SOLs, then remediation may be offered the following year, but cannot be mandated. One school supervisor advised a parent that in the case of evacuations, school personnel should be able to understand that any less-than-passing rate would most likely be attributable to the unique circumstances of the child, and would not be used to form judgements about a student's potential performance. An advocate for the child such as a teacher, parent, or administrator should also be able to write a letter to explain the evacuation circumstances to add to the child's record if the child does unusually poorly.
For high school students, the scenario in Virginia is much different, as Standards of Learning tests are required for graduation and thus become high-stakes testing. New graduation requirements are being phased in, and students will be required to pass a certain number of "verified units of credit" (SOLs) in order to receive either the modified, standard, or advanced studies diploma. Refer to State graduation requirements, diploma types, and credit requirements. (Note that county requirements might include additional requirements - see Fairfax County's requirements.) There are alternatives that may be acceptable to the SOL end-of-course exam that would suit the unique needs of a transfer student such as a Foreign Service student. See graduation requirements or substitute tests for transfer students on the Virginia Department of Education web site. Whether a student passes or fails will not be reflected on their transcripts, and they are given other opportunities to retake the exams.
What should a high school student on evacuation orders do? First of all, the Family Liaison Office recommends that the student take the SOL exam if at all possible. The uncertainty of evacuations has demonstrated that one cannot be certain about what might happen next. It has happened that plans can change dramatically and students end up graduating from an American high school in Virginia due to circumstances beyond their control. Those SOLs will then take on an all-new importance for high school graduation. Again, math and language arts are more universal skills-based tests, and therefore the chances for a passing score are good. Science and social studies are more problematic - it is recommended that the student and parents confer with the guidance counselor and SOL coordinator at the school. Standards of Learning for high school courses are listed by course description rather than grade level. See SOL test release items and Teacher resources. These can be valuable resources for the student who wishes to further practice their skills before the tests.
The Family Liaison Office has compiled a list of Internet resources found at the end of this article to help family members anywhere in the world learn more about Virginia Standards of Learning as well as the No Child Left Behind Act. The Virginia Department of Education web site has detailed information on curriculum, graduation requirements, transfer students, curriculum materials for teachers, released test items, and a parent handbook. The No Child Left Behind web site has excellent information on this new testing program as it develops.
The Family Liaison Office has an Education and Youth Officer knowledgeable about current issues in education, and may be contacted at FLOAskEducation@state.gov. Additionally, your child's teacher(s) and guidance counselors at the school are excellent resources and it is recommended that you communicate individual concerns with the appropriate school personnel as well. Standardized tests are changing the face of public education, and it is in the best interests of parents and children to be informed and aware of how these issues will affect their future.
Testing and Graduation Information for Fairfax County Public Schools
Virginia Department of Education Resources and Standards of Learning Currently in Effect for Virginia Public Schools
No Child Left Behind Act
The No Child Left Behind Act is federal legislation signed into effect on January 8, 2002 (NCLB) . This plan for educational reform has four basic principles: "stronger accountability for results, increased flexibility and local control, expanded options for parents, and an emphasis on teaching options that have been proven to work."
Visit the NCLB web site at http://www.nclb.gov for FAQs about new law and changes it will bring, fact sheets about many aspects of education, and a glossary of terms used in education. Features of web site with easily navigable links include:
Information provided by the Family Liaison Office